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In The Mood For Love: Wong Kar-Wai's Stylish Reflection on Regret

By Simma Park

Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung in In The Mood For Love

Tony Leung as Mr. Chow and Maggie Cheung as Mrs. Chan

Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung  in In The Mood For Love
Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung

Photos courtesy of USA Films

NEW YORK, 7 April 2001 - Wong Kar-Wai's latest film, In the Mood for Love, may not be his most entertaining, but it is his most thoughtful. With 1997's Happy Together, which won him the Best Director prize at Cannes, it continues a trend toward a less frenetic, more contemplative approach to filmmaking that, for better or for worse, shows that the enfant terrible of Hong Kong cinema is growing up.

Long-time Wong fans need not fear that he has lost any of his flamboyance;. He remains uninhibited in displaying his infatuation with the expressive possibilities of the medium, and he has created a work of stunning visual interest and beauty. In the Mood for Love examines a relationship between two people in which almost nothing happens, and the smallest gesture therefore becomes charged with significance. As if to be able to pick up on these subtleties, Wong moves away from the pop-video pacing for which he is famous and lets the movie unfold with hypnotic slowness.

In its approach to filmmaking, In the Mood for Love can be considered the antithesis of its arthouse rival, Elias E. Merhige's pedantic, plot-driven Shadow of the Vampire. Shadow of the Vampire's main character, obsessive Weimar film pioneer F.W. Murnau (John Malkovich), repeatedly insists: "If it's not in the frame, it doesn't exist!", and, as though the filmmakers took his axiom to heart,Vampire lays out on the screen every possible plot twist and philosophical implication. In the Mood for Love, on the other hand, is a film in which the frame must give form to that which does not exist; it is Wong's exploration of the ultimate "negative space" in the composition of human lives: regret - a phenomenon defined by absence and experienced in the spaces created by what we do not do, or see, or say.

The simple plot is set in early '60s Hong Kong among a community of immigrants from Shanghai. Chow Mo-Wan (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) and Su Li-Zhen, or Mrs. Chan, (Maggie Cheung Man-Yuk) rent rooms with families in adjoining homes and become neighbors. Mr. Chow is a journalist and Mrs. Chan a secretary at a shipping company. Both are young, beautiful, and loyal to largely absent spouses; Mrs. Chow works odd hours as a hotel receptionist, and Mr. Chan spends most of his time traveling abroad on business. The impeccably polite and proper Mo-Wan and Li-Zhen try to hide that they are lonely while pretending they do not each notice that the other is always alone.

One day, they discover that their spouses are having an affair with one another. Devastated by the realization, Mo-Wan and Li-Zhen secretly spend evenings together rehearsing ways to confront their spouses and reenacting various scenarios that might shed light on how the affair began. Their time together forges a deep but painful friendship - as well as a love on which they can never act, as the two vow never to behave like their partners. Restrained by propriety and duty, they are unable to express their feelings.

At heart, all of Wong's films have been studies on the haphazard and occasionally happy intersections of lives lived in anonymity and loneliness. From the neon-lit labyrinths of modern-day Hong Kong in ChungKing Express and Fallen Angels to the endless desolation of China's western deserts in Ashes of Time, Wong's films, however whimsical and sentimental in tone, are almost documentary in spirit, as though their purpose is to record moments that would otherwise be forever lost in the chaotic passage of lives through time and space. In the Mood for Love takes a different tack on Wong's usual themes, to examine missed intersections and failed encounters.

To this end, the filmmakers employ a range of daring and effective tricks in order to bring the negative aspects of sound and image to the foreground. Wong's long-time creative partner William Chang, here both production designer and editor, conjures a sense of absence with his editing. Rarely are two people allowed to inhabit the same shot, and in his environments of narrow, turning corridors, when two characters interact, one is almost always obscured by a corner or a door. The unfaithful spouses, the agents who drive the story, remain outside the frame, their faces unseen. In the key scenes when both Leung and Cheung inhabit the same frame, Christopher Doyle, director of photography for all but one of Wong's films, shoots the actors in profile, as though half of them were missing. His trademark oversaturated palette expresses the repression of the main characters' emotions and charges the frames' negative spaces with color, bringing them into the foreground.

Negative space also looms in the film's soundtrack. Scenes of dialogue unfold without the embellishment of music, and silences and gaps in conversation are literally heard as the hiss and buzz of background noise-as if they had been recorded on low-grade or period sound equipment. Music in In the Mood for Love - a faltering, plaintive waltz chosen to evoke nostalgia and uncertainty - marks the passage of time between scenes, and is almost exclusively used in slow-motion shots in which characters are silently coming, going, or passing one another. The quiet soundtrack that thrums with bass notes as though with restrained passion.

If this film has a flaw, it is that Western audiences may not find the film to be satisfying entertainment. It will disorient those who need an ending with closure - the threads of the characters' lives trail off, leaving not the slightest inkling of their future. And those who need happy endings will be heartbroken by the last scene, which drives home that everything we do - and do not do - must eventually be consigned to the oblivion of time. In the Mood for Love lacks even the equivocal optimism of Wong's previous, more popular films.

Nevertheless, In the Mood for Love's characters are profoundly sympathetic. Not only are Maggie Cheung Man-Yuk and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai both gifted with a pathos that makes them two of East Asia's finest actors, but they also possess a warm and effortless elegance that harks back to the classic Hollywood stars. Both have worked numerous time with Wong and easily find the right emotional notes for Mo-Wan and Li-Zhen. The supporting characters are an eccentric but likeable bunch, especially Mo-Wan's lecherous but endearing old friend Ping played by Sui Ping Lam (Wong's long-time props-master, in his first-and, according to him, last-acting credit).

The greatest strength of In the Mood for Love, however, is its fearless yet judicious experimentation. In an age when the visual and aural language of even so-called independent cinema is codified in decades-old conventions, Wong invents whole new modes of expression. Wong's frequent distortions of image and sound have led to charges that he is gimmicky, and have even drawn comparisons to Jean-Luc Godard-creating films so hip and gorgeous that they place style before substance. In the Mood for Love, however, reveals Wong's real maturity - every trick he pulls out of the bag is here for a purpose. Even the lingering, slow-motion shots of unfurling of cigarette smoke, which so often seem a self-indulgent visual cliché in his other films, here become an apt illustration of the characters' fleeting imprint on the world, impermanent except as preserved through the magic of the moving image.

Though not the right choice for those looking for fun or catharsis, In the Mood for Love is a supremely crafted, intelligent film, more than worth the trip to the theater.

Three and a half stars.

Simma Park is a writer and designer living in New York.

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